The vote that toppled Prime Minister Matteo Renzi on December 4, 2016 was more than a protest vote: it was a scream of pain and anger over youth unemployment (now more than 32 percent) and middle class impoverishment; it was a revolt vote against the ruling classes, against the frustration of knowing that Italians today live at a lower level than their grandparents, a vote of rage and hunger, a vote of envy, a vote from the left, from the right, from the frustrated against “the sling and arrows of outrageous fortune” – just like the Brexit vote in England or the vote for Trump in the United States.
Sixty per cent “no” versus 40 per cent “sì” is a verdict of political death for Renzi, at least for some years; it’s more than a defeat. It’s a mobilization of the people with a turnout of more than 75 percent deciding to destroy the government and kick out the prime minister in a powerful and irrational surge. “I didn’t think they hated me so much,” Renzi said. Neither did I. Renzi had been basically a good, daring prime minister, but the ideological and economic crisis of Europe, the failure of the euro, the massive immigration, and the fear of terrorism all engulfed him. The 41-year-old politician’s “no-nonsense,” direct, sometimes arrogant juvenile attitude also damaged his image.
Renzi Lost, but Who Won?
A very mixed group made of five completely different parties won, a strange, enormous, and mixed coalition that formed. They easily beat the half of the Democratic Party (DP) that remained faithful to Prime Minister Matteo Renzi together with the New Center Right (NCD), another small party of his coalition, and with groups of benevolent anti-populist and anti-communist voters, who probably read the text of the proposed reform and thought to themselves: well it’s not the best constitutional reform, but if we don’t do it now, it will never happen again.
Most of all, the mixed crowd who conducted a ferocious campaign against Renzi. For two months, they declared him a dictator, a corrupt politician, an ambitious vane young man with a disproportionate ego, an agent of the “strong powers” (the populist Five Stars Movement included among them the “Jewish Lobby”).
It is the time of populist revolutions, and these groups decided that it was time to act, use the occasion and personalize it to take down the government and replace the man who surprised everybody with an overwhelming victory in 2014, with an explosive vitality and creativity. Renzi was responsible for presenting a reform plan to modernize Italy’s government and considered it a supreme test. He displayed arrogance and overassurance that he was the best man in Italy and also in Europe, able to connect the left and the right, to be a conservative liberal and a liberal conservative, and to destroy, as he said, the old bureaucrats and the leading class.
He promised too much, despised too much, showed himself too much on TV, and put together a staff that was more of a club of young people, friends, and people that he could trust. The populist classes hated this, and the ones who took advantages of it were most of all Five Stars, a successful populist party with a dictator boss, an actor, Beppe Grillo, who already won the last elections in Rome and Torino.
Grillo comprises the worst of the left and the right, including hatred for Israel. The La Lega party and the neo-fascists are also among the great winners with the left of Massimo D’Alema, the Italian prime minister and foreign minister who marched in Beirut hand-in-hand with the Hizbullah in their bombed neighborhood.
Renzi thought he would win and made a big mistake at a time when populism and discontent are rearing their heads, when the Brexit vote shocked Britain, when the euro is a symbol of economical European crisis; young adults remain at home with mother and father, and immigrants pound at Europe’s door. In the near future, we may see the same happening in Holland, France, and Germany.
The vote against Matteo Renzi’s referendum must be taken very seriously by the leading European classes because it shows that there is a large, irrational storm — like a flood that can destroy any dike. The dikes that held until today will not last forever, and after this vote any other development is possible.
Renzi’s proposal for a change in the constitution was at first shared by Silvio Berlusconi with their “Nazareno” political alliance agreement, but after Renzi chose Sergio Mattarella for president, the republic saw him as dangerous and arrogant. Actually, the referendum was proposing a decent idea of constitutional change, even if it was certainly not perfect. And it was certainly not the first time that Italy was changing its post-war, post-resistance leftist constitution.
Reforming the Sacred Constitution
The basic change was to reform what is called “il bicameralismo perfetto,” namely a bicameral Italian parliament, divided into “Senato” and “Camera” with absolutely identical and equal tasks. Therefore, the possibilty of each house sending laws back and forth from each to the other for review and revotes for months and sometimes for years, would have slowed down the economy, society, and enterprise and promoted bureaucracy. The Senato consisted of 315 senators, with 630 deputies in the Camera, (the lower chamber), a huge number who travel, are payed high salaries, and receive a pension all their life after they retire. Renzi sought to reduce the number of senators to 100, to be elected locally in the regions and giving them different powers than the Camera, more tied to local problems. He also pushed for other reforms like canceling the existence of the “province,” a local small elective assembly with useless offices and clerks in thousands.
Renzi was right, and many recognized that his reforms were quite reasonable. But suddenly, the public realized that the vote was becoming a vote for or against Renzi, for or against the ruling classes, a moderate vision of Italy, and a foreign policy critical of the EU under German hegemony. Renzi supported EU ties economically and socially as well as retaining the euro. His opponents started finding good reasons against the reform itself, describing it as a tool for Renzi to establish a sort of institutional dictatorship using the new slimmer Senate as a tool. It was a fantasy void of any substance.
Reality has never been so important in the extremely inflamed tones of this electoral competition. Two concepts actually had the upper hand. One, the word “constitution” is a sacred cow. Even after it was changed several times, the myth of a resistance, anti-fascist child of the Italian partisans is alive. The untouchable Italian constitution has often been described with typical Italian rhetoric as “the most beautiful of the world.” This mantra resounded among the leftist crowds and parties, while the right served as the anti-European choir.
The second factor was the prime minister’s popularity. Renzi, who changed the PD into a moderate liberal-conservative party, has been hated by the left since the beginning of this enterprise, which started with an agreement with Berlusconi. The left of his own party declared war on his youth and iconoclasm. The ex-party secretary, Pier Luigi Bersani, never forgave Renzi for his 10 point advantage among the voters in 2014, reaching the incredible result of 42 percent. Former prime minister and foreign minister Massimo D’Alema’s militancy against Renzi incited many old communist activists.
Now an uncertain future waits for Italy after Renzi resigned. Many now demand immediate elections, but there are technical problem that cannot be so quickly solved, and the president of the Republic has asked him to stay until the economic budget vote. Renzi may remain for a little while more. But a new era has started, and it may be very unpleasant to see Grillo and the Five Stars, ascending to the prime minister’s seat in Palazzo Chigi, built on 1578 by the Aldobrandini family, a noble mansion of the noblest dynasties in Rome, where Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart performed a concert in 1770.
This article originally appeared in The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (December 8, 2016).